It’s funny what makes you remember the passing of time. An album turning 10 or 20 or 30, a film, the cultural reunions that happen like secret club meetings within already secret clubs.
Has it really been 20 years since Curtis Mayfield died?
But in 1999 Curtis Mayfield was a big part of my world. Maybe he was my world. You see, the box-set from 1996 was new to me around this time (I’d bought it in 97/98) and though I knew about Curtis and his Impressions ahead of that, it was the heavy listening to this amazing box-set (one of the all-time best and most important greatest hits multi-disc sets) that brought home just how great he was.
I knew about his Superfly cuts, People Get Ready and one or two other things – but this box-set was such an education.
This cat was Prince and John Lennon and Lenny Kravitz and James Brown and something else altogether all rolled into one. He was clearly an influential writer, arranger, singer, and being – and yet I felt, for a while there, like I was the only one that knew about him. That box-set was a bible. I loved it. Worshiped his musical worlds. There was so much in those three CDs and even more in the spaces between.
And then the news-item on the radio telling us he died.
I was at home in Hawke’s Bay – we were people getting ready to celebrate New Year’s Eve. The Millennium. My uncle would arrive with a Pink Floyd tape (TAPE! Dark Side of the Moon!!) in his top pocket, hoping to hear it as the sun eclipsed the moon. Or whatever.
I had read a book about The Millennium Bug. Y2K was, maybe, gonna ruin our worlds. The cars might not ever be able to get fuel again, the computers weren’t going to turn on. The banks would swallow our money (well, when has that never happened?) and, you know…
We would wake up on the first of January, 2000 and it would be any other day. A guy from the party would have a sore tongue where a woman had bit down hard because he’d tried to pash her.
And I’d find out the police in Wellington were waiting to hear from me as soon as I got back into town. Something about stolen goods. Receiving.
My mum and dad were heading into town to get some stuff for the party and I texted, asking them to see if they could get a Curtis Mayfield CD – my box-set suddenly seeming worlds away.
And how funny to be thinking back to when music wasn’t just at our fingertips eh.
They returned with something called “Greatest Hits” which covered some of the bases. But nobody seemed to care. Which is to say they didn’t care that the right bases weren’t being covered, or that not enough of them were and that no one really seemed to be devastated by this loss, this total influence on Prince and many others. I think I even told someone that I was like that character in the short story The Day Hemingway Died by Owen Marshall.
We played the mini Greatest Hits CD but people in the garage drinking whatever made it into their plastic cups wanted to hear Mambo # 5 instead. And later, way later, Pink Floyd…
The petrol-pumps survived. The bank accounts too. I’d even make it back to Wellington and after a nervous, distracted screening of Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo (to kill time on a Thursday night) I’d go down to the local police and “help them with their inquiries”.
I survived. I bought the first four Curtis albums, some of the Impressions records and a few other things as I’d find them, the records from right near the end of his career, a couple of other things called “Greatest Hits” too.
I’ll never forget that weird feeling, 20 years ago, of feeling like I had to have the music in my hand so that I could hold it in my heart. And feeling helpless for not really quite having it. Feeling lonely for not having anyone that seemed to care or know or even try.
Curtis, of course, didn’t make it. Didn’t survive.
But he’d done more than enough – made some of the greatest music I’ll ever hear or have or hold. Made me make some rather strange memories, from a difficult time. Made one hell of an impression.
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